(dpa) - The Kremlin's soldiers very grudgingly handed back the Georgians a few kilometres of their country on Saturday, but they were in no hurry.
"We're here to teach the Georgians a lesson," a captain from Russia's 17th Motor Rifle Division told a Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa reporter.
The infantry captain said he was 26 years old and a native of the Ural Mountain city Ulyanovsk. His modest command - five T-72 tanks, four BMP personnel carriers, and some 50 sweaty and dirty men - was at some 35 kilometres from the Georgian capital Tbilisi the very spearhead tip of the Kremlin's armored invasion of Georgia.
Four soldiers and a lieutenant stood in the shade of acacias, taking cover from baking heat reflected off the surprisingly well-maintained Georgian hardtop. A Zhighuli automobile with trunk and back seat jammed with peaches puttered up to the Russian checkpoint, just short of a bridge over the Lekhura River.
The lowest-ranking soldier, a man from Russia's southern Krasnodar province, received orders to inspect the car. Sweating in body armour and helmet, and loaded down with 300 rounds of ammunition, he peered at the peaches. The smell from the trunk made clear the 38 degree temperatures were quickly baking the fruit.
The driver, a middle-aged Georgian, offered the Russian as many peaches as he could carry. The soldier declined and waved the Zhiguli on. The peaches trundled out of Russian-controlled Georgia, into Georgia-controlled Georgia. Villagers and soldiers shared a bottle of water.
The flies, dust, and deadening heat notwithstanding, the Lekhura River checkpoint was the focus of an intense diplomatic battle between the West and the Kremlin. The Russian army's decision to establish the checkpoint, a mere three kilometres from the last one, had come as a surprise for representatives of the European Union up the road.
Brussel's top man on the scene Finnish Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told reporters in Igoeti village, the site of the old checkpoint, that the Russians should fall back dozens of kilometres and leave road traffic alone, as Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev had signed a ceasefire agreement to that effect.
British and Polish officers on the scene, dapper in khaki-yellow berets as observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observed the proceedings through binoculars. Earlier in the day they noted down every single one of the Russian tanks and BMPs as they rumbled out of Igoeti village back across the Lekhura River bridge.
The Russians have the tanks on the ground and words will do little to shift them, the English colonel said.
As the afternoon sun pounded down, the OSCE officers waited patiently and sipped water as Paet, unfortunately for the season attired in a white long-sleeve shirt and green silk tie, worked the phones. A compromise was reached: Paet's automobile column would be waved forward, but the Russians would stay put.
Led by a vehicle flying two Estonian flags, one from each headlight, the motorcade charged forward. The soldiers and Georgian civilians at Lekhura River checkpoint watched the diplomats and European soldiers and international journalists and Georgian officials charge by at high speed.
They saw plenty on their high-speed trip (no Georgian police were present to enforce speed limits, after all) between the Lekhura River and the auto column's destination Gori. Tanks had taken up commanding positions a kilometre away from the checkpoint. Further on dozens of tanks and thousands of Russian soldiers were going about their business, some digging in using earth-moving equipment captured from the Georgians.
At the Lekhura River checkpoint meanwhile, the soldiers went back to the slow and generally lazy business of monitoring traffic and inspecting vehicle contents, at least while the journalists were watching. Villagers stood around, not exactly friendly to the Russians but not antagonistic either. There were political discussions about the pros and cons of Russian occupation of Georgia, but except for one intoxicated Georgian farmer, frankly the heat killed off most conversation.
"I'd be glad to go home, this isn't the easiest of duty," a lieutenant from Ingushetia said. "But until we get orders otherwise, we stay here."