The war in the Caucasian province Ossetia may seem like an uneven contest between giant Russia and tiny Georgia -- but on the battlefront things are a bit different.
Georgian soldiers have been trained by US military experts
Georgia's President President Mikheil Saakashvili, coming to office in the 2003 pro-democracy Rose Revolution, has with some help from the United States built up the region's toughest little military. Russia can destroy it, but it will be neither quick nor easy, regional observers say.
US Special Forces troops, and later US Marines replacing them, have for the last half decade been systematically training selected Georgian units to NATO standards. Gone are the Soviet traditions of soldiers' never firing their weapons until the war breaks out, or tanks too valuable to drive out of the motor pool.
Using standard training plans familiar to the average US Army or Marine recruit, the US educators have focused on basics: teaching Georgian soldiers small unit tactics, marksmanship, and individual initiative.
The US trainers also took the Georgian officer corps to school, pushing lessons and buzz words learned by America in its recent wars.
Among these, are making the air force and army work together (inter-service cooperation), trying to surprise the opponent and possess lots of information about him (the information battle), getting beans and bullets to the troops (logistics), and enforcing the bog-standard rule that good officers lead from the front.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has invested heavily in his country's military
Saakashvili has fully backed up the American trainers: In high-unemployment Georgia, the best-paid job available to an active young Georgian man is within the ranks of the military.
Today, roughly one-quarter of Georgia's functional land forces are US-trained. The backbone of the Georgian army is seven infantry battalions raised from scratch and brought by the US Green Berets from boot camp to something quite close to NATO-standard combat readiness over the years, a mass of some 5,000 men.
Georgia since 2003 has been among the US' most enthusiastic supporters of international forces in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Currently Georgia, once a minor Soviet republic of some 4.5 million inhabitants, fields the third-largest foreign force in Iraq, after the US and Britain.
Russia has a much larger army at its disposal
Georgia's government on Saturday called on those desert-hardened veterans, requesting the Pentagon release the elite 13th battalion to return home from the Middle East, to fight Russians in Ossetia.
Saakashvili's Defense Ministry, according to officials in Tbilisi, spends some $930 million (620 million euros) a year on its military, a drop in the bucket compared to Russia, but a massive spike from $30 million spent in 1991 when Georgia became independent.
Perhaps tellingly, a lion's share of Georgia's defense budget has gone to field training and soldier personal kit.
First-line Georgian soldiers wear NATO uniforms, kevlar helmets and body armour matching US issue, and carry the US-manufactured M-16 automatic rifle -- a dramatic turn away from the way most former Soviet republics outfit troops, with a mix of Soviet-era hand-me-downs and more recent Russian or Chinese gear.
Georgia has, however, not thrown out every last Kalashnikov, and most of Georgia's reserves and second-line troops are not as well equipped, and trained marginally, similar to Russian reserves that might be sent to the region.
Big ticket items
But Georgia at the same time has according to military observers spent its limited money on a few well-chosen big ticket items: modern Czech self-propelled howitzers and rocket launchers (of which some now are bombarding Tskhinvali), Turkish armored cars, and even a French missile boat.
The infantry force the Georgians have fielded in Ossetia, as a result, is by most accounts at least as competent as Russian army elements opposing it, and by some standards (combat experience and field training) possibly even superior, observers said.
Russia as a regional power, however, enjoys overall superiority over the Georgians, in the short term with a much stronger air force, and in the longer term with the Kremlin's potential ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of troops and conquer Georgia -- provided the Kremlin has the will to take the losses needed to eliminate their doughty opponents.
A second and probably more critical question is, therefore, whether it is Saakashvili or the Kremlin that is more willing to spend soldier lives in what by all accounts promises to be more bloody fighting.