AMERICANS CAN start with a little understanding for the Russians in sending warplanes to bomb out guerrillas in Russia's Chechnya. Not only can Moscow claim cause to fight to assert territorial integrity and national authority in the troubled Islamic Caucasus region. Moscow is also claiming to be responding to suspected Chechen bombings of apartments in Moscow and elsewhere; these attacks took hundreds of lives. Moreover, at first glance it appears that Russia is doing no more in Chechnya than NATO did not long ago in Kosovo: fighting to pursue a valid national policy, to hit infrastructure targets (oil, communications) and to keep casualties among the airmen to a politically tolerable minimum.

But things are not so simple in the renewal of a regional war in which Chechen guerrillas humiliated the Russian army and won Chechnya effective independence in 1994-96. There is no single authoritative figure -- no Slobodan Milosevic -- to pull the switch on canny guerrillas dispersed in mountain terrain. Further, there are serious questions about whether the dozens of daily airstrikes will do their intended job and, if they do not, whether the Russian ground forces now being moved up will do theirs. Victory over the guerrillas apparently has become not just a military goal but an obsession among a Russian command still smarting from earlier defeat.

It can do no good for the United States or NATO to see Russia once again humiliated. That result can only aggravate Russia's darker nationalist currents and distract it from more progressive tasks. The West needs a competent, forward-looking Russia, not one caught in the coils of a dirty ethnic war. In this light it is particularly disturbing to find the Yeltsin government disdaining talks with the Chechen government, which has its own reason to restore local order. There is no good solution to this conflict, but some solutions are better than others, and Moscow does not yet appear to be heading toward them.