DURING NATO's war against Serbia last spring, Russian officials bitterly condemned U.S. bombardments and urged negotiations as an alternative. "Sometimes you have to speak to [Slobodan Milosevic] two, three, five, 10 or 20 times," President Boris Yeltsin said. "But we shouldn't regret talking to him those 10 or 20 times for the sake of the hundreds and hundreds of people who will die in a few hours." And, Mr. Yeltsin added, "Morally, we are above America."

Now it is Mr. Yeltsin who bombs and refuses to talk. The president of Chechnya has appealed repeatedly for negotiation; he has turned to Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who has agreed to act as intermediary. But Mr. Yeltsin instead has sent his bombers into action against the villages and cities of Chechnya, many of which are still in ruins from Russia's failed war in 1994-96. As Post correspondent Daniel Williams reported from the battlefield, it is mostly civilians who are being hurt, killed and turned into refugees. Russia talks about "resettling" the homeless, a gloomy echo of Stalin's brutal deportation of the Chechen people 55 years ago.

It is possible, certainly, to differ on the merits of the justifications offered for, respectively, the military interventions in Kosovo and Chechnya. Our view is that NATO's operation was essential as a response to Mr. Milosevic's massive atrocities against the people of Kosovo. It's also our view that NATO tried for a long time -- probably too long -- to negotiate with the Serbian leader.

In Chechnya, Russia has certainly been provoked by terrorists crossing the border and seizing villages. Other criminals, who are assumed without evidence to have come from Chechnya, have blown up apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. If the military action were aimed at those culpable for such attacks, or seemed likely to contain them, it would be difficult to question Russia's right to bomb. But Russian forces are swinging wildly at an entire territory. This may prove temporarily popular inside Russia, but it is unlikely to diminish the terrorist threat or provide any stability. Mr. Yeltsin is simply repeating a policy that failed five years ago, with minor variations in tactics, presumably because he doesn't know what else to do.

As with everything these days in Russia, the campaign in Chechnya has to be seen in the context of coming elections. Voters are scheduled to choose a new parliament in December, a new president a half-year later. Through all its troubles, the country's greatest hope lies in its people choosing a government with fresh energy and new approaches. The greatest danger is that Mr. Yeltsin and his team will use Chechnya as a pretext to delay or subvert the elections. Then all Russians would join the people of Chechnya as Mr. Yeltsin's victims.