IT SEEMS THE Russians not only supported Slobodan Milosevic during his dirty war in Kosovo; they took lessons from him too. Now they are following a Milosevic strategy, destroying the rebellious province of Chechnya in the name of pacifying it. They bomb villages and towns from afar, creating tens of thousands of refugees. Then they open and close borders seemingly at random, so that desperate, displaced people crush each other at crossing choke points. Finally, they deny access to international aid workers, so that refugees who manage to escape to neighboring provinces of Russia face hunger and exposure.

What would prompt the Russian government to engage in such behavior, knowing as it must that its already clouded reputation can only suffer further? The outgunned, outmanned Chechens, a Muslim people who had long chafed under Moscow's rule, subjected the Russian army to a humiliating defeat in 1996. The Russian military has been looking for revenge ever since. Attacks by Chechen guerrillas on villages in neighboring provinces, along with apartment-building bombings that Russian authorities blamed (without providing evidence) on Chechen terrorists, gave the military a reason to act. But it now seems determined to go far beyond its stated goal of eliminating Chechen terrorists; the entire population seems to be a target.

During the 1994-96 war, Russians killed an estimated 50,000 civilians, a breathtaking loss from a pre-war population of less than 1 million. At least 6,000 Russian troops also died. This time the military has adopted a strategy that reduces its own casualties while putting more innocent people at risk.

Because of lawlessness and kidnappings in territory controlled by Chechens, few foreign reporters or aid workers will travel to afflicted regions. Thus do Chechen civilians suffer twice: directly from Russian brutality, and indirectly from the thuggishness of Chechen warlords. The ruin that Russia is visiting on its wayward province goes largely unreported.

The absence of television pictures explains in part the mildness of foreign criticism, but it is not the whole story. The United States has other priorities in Moscow--renegotiating the ABM treaty, for example--so why squander diplomatic capital on a lost cause? The Russian military may be beyond civilian control; Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in any case has no desire to rein in the army, because the war is making him more popular than ever. Russian liberals, once the conscience of the nation, hold their tongues because they prefer Mr. Putin to any likely alternative.

At least until the war turns sour for Russian troops, the calculations add up nicely for everyone--everyone, that is, except the growing thousands of women and children bedding down each night in bombed-out railway stations and muddy wheat fields.