US Toughens Chechnya Talk but Has Little Leverage ; as Strains Grow between the US and Russia, American Officials Worry

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Relations between the White House and the Kremlin are becoming more tenuous with each Russian military advance into the lawless republic of Chechnya.

US officials were relatively silent a month ago at the start of the operation, which is aimed at crushing Islamic rebels. But since fighting drove more than 170,000 residents from their homes, and a rocket attack on a market killed more than 100 people, US officials have labeled the offensive "deplorable and ominous."

President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have at least 10 times directly urged Russian officials to stop fighting and start peace talks with the Chechens, an administration official says.

The rift in relations threatens to isolate Russia internationally while it faces parliamentary elections, economic turmoil, and uncertainty about its nuclear defenses.

US officials worry that a total meltdown of relations could strengthen Moscow hard-liners, especially if today's conflict becomes a repeat of the 1994-96 Chechen war - a humiliation for the Russian Army in which about 100,000, mostly civilians, died.

The current conflict is not on that scale yet, but appears headed in that direction. The Russian Army, with strong public support, is strangling the Chechen capital of Grozny and blocking civilians from fleeing the region. Yesterday, Russian bombers swooped into the capital, killing 38 and injuring 100, Chechen officials said.

"This will certainly hurt our relations with [Russia]," says Marshall Goldman, a Russia expert at Wellesley College.

The conflict comes as US-Russia relations are already strained.

High levels of corruption in Moscow, exposed by the Bank of New York money-laundering scandal, have forced some here to question whether the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should continue to prop up the Russian economy. Also, Russia objects to US plans to build a missile-defense system and has threatened to counter by deploying more atomic warheads.

"We urge Russia not to repeat the mistakes of the past in Chechnya," Dr. Albright said this week, "and instead to open a dialogue toward a peaceful resolution with legitimate Chechen partners."

Russian officials justify their attack as a crackdown on rebels who in August launched an offensive into neighboring Dagestan and whom investigators blame for the September apartment bombings in Moscow that killed nearly 300 people.

Further, the US may have little clout, with Russians still upset about NATO's expansion to include former East bloc states and its bombing of their Slavic brethren, the Serbs, in Kosovo. …