NO U.S. POLITICIAN would propose helping pay for Russia's war in Chechnya. Yet that is what U.S. taxpayers, indirectly, are doing. The International Monetary Fund, which gets about one-quarter of its money from the United States, lends billions of dollars to keep Russia's government afloat. Now that Russia is spending money to destroy villages and create refugees in Chechnya, it seems fair to ask -- as presidential candidate and Republican senator John McCain did last week -- whether such assistance should continue.

In principle, the IMF does not get involved in "political" questions such as the legitimacy of Russia's war against its breakaway province of Chechnya. The fund is neither equipped nor chartered to make such judgments. To the extent it deviates from its core economic mission, it can only weaken itself. That is why an IMF mission in Moscow last week could approach this question only obliquely, by asking whether Russia's war would require a fiscally unacceptable rise in military spending.

In Russia's case, there are especially compelling reasons not to cut off aid. The United States will not be well served if the Russian economy spirals downward. U.S. officials rightly want to retain connections -- to stay engaged -- with Russian officials, to maintain some leverage in favor of reform, to continue a dialogue with a nuclear-armed and unstable giant.

Yet there must be some behaviors that are so repugnant that they override all such sensible arguments, and it is hard to view Russia's brutality against the people of Chechnya in any other light. Few would oppose a Russian campaign to eliminate terrorism, the stated purpose of its military action. But Russia's violence against Chechen civilians has become so indiscriminate and massive that no one can take seriously any longer the official justifications. Just on Friday, a Russian deputy prime minister stated flatly that Chechnya's capital will be destroyed.

Due to relentless bombing of cities and towns, some 200,000 residents have fled Chechnya, mostly to the neighboring province of Ingushetia. Many are subsisting on tea and bread and sleeping in unheated tents or even open fields as temperatures plunge below freezing. But these refugees are the fortunate ones. Those left behind -- mostly the elderly and infirm -- are cowering in basements, without water or electricity, short on food and in constant danger of bombardments. Red Cross convoys have been attacked. Russia has rejected efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to gather information or help those at risk.

Judging by the very public divisions and recriminations among officials in Moscow, Russia may not have any defined strategy in Chechnya. To the extent that the military is pursuing a plan, however, it appears to be aimed at the destruction of an entire population. U.S. ability to influence Russia now may be limited; but at a minimum, the United States should not be complicit in the crime.