Russia's generals are rebuilding their state on the mangled corpses of Chechnya's civilians. Chechens must die for Russian notions of power and territorial control to live again. The bodies are just bricks in the Kremlin's bloody wall of revived nationalism.

The man-made humanitarian disaster in Chechnya will accelerate now that Boris Yeltsin has faced down President Clinton and Europe's leaders at the ineffectual summit on European security in Istanbul. Nothing said or done at the Istanbul conference will deflect Yeltsin from the wild and bloody ride to state recovery that his generals and political doctors have prescribed.

The Russian commanders make no secret of their intention to raze the regional capital of Grozny and then plow under the ruins. They expect that in the rubble will lie the body of Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla commander who humiliated them in the 1994-96 campaign. Elsewhere in Chechnya the Russians will proclaim a new capital and install a puppet regime, with which Moscow will "negotiate."

At ground level this struggle is intensely personal. But look beyond the thirst for revenge and the necessary repair work on the reputations of Anatoly Kvashnin, Vladimir Chamanov, Gennadi Trochev and the other generals who are directing the current savage assault.

The Chechen war is determining the nature of the Russian state for the foreseeable future. And it is writing in blood the limits of the related concepts of humanitarian intervention and self-determination for massively abused minority populations. This small local war can change the direction of international politics for years to come.

If they succeed in Chechnya, the Russian generals will have more influence at the Kremlin than at any time since the early days of Soviet rule. And these generals are not only angry. They are also determined to redress and avenge the successive demonstrations of Russian state impotence in the first Chechen conflict, in Clinton's politically driven rush to NATO expansion and in NATO's air war on Serbia over Kosovo.

Chechnya has become for Yeltsin, his handpicked successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and their generals the fault line of Russian national existence.

Psychologically the Russian state seemed a few months ago to have ceased to exist, both as an international power and as a guarantor of security for its citizens. Mysterious bomb blasts in Moscow and incursions by Basayev's forces into the neighboring province of Dagestan showed the Yeltsin administration's fecklessness, less than a year before new presidential elections.

Putin has created a strong constituency for his candidacy within the military by giving the commanders free rein. Media outlets owned by Yeltsin ally Boris Berezovsky--who was suddenly freed from a corruption investigation this month--denounce as traitors politicians who suggest the blast-and-burn tactics may be excessive.

This includes Yevgeny Primakov, Yeltsin's former prime minister, former head of intelligence, longtime critic of U.S. global power and, according to polls, the biggest threat to Putin's candidacy. Primakov, of all people, is being portrayed in Berezovsky's media empire as a tool of Western imperialism because he is not baying for Chechen blood.

"Everything in Moscow now is seen through the prism of Chechnya and Kosovo," said one Russian official I contacted by telephone. "The public is buying the idea that if we fail in Chechnya outside powers will be able to do whatever they want to Russia, and the bombing in Kosovo showed what they want to do."

A Russia that thinks this way is a Russia that for all intents and purposes is "lost" to constructive engagement with Washington. The West's carrots have shrunk to irrelevance and there is no credible stick available to influence Moscow's behavior in Chechnya. A policy of "maintenance" of existing financial and political ties with Moscow is the best that can be achieved before next year's elections produce new leaders in both capitals.

This need not mean a new Cold War. But it does mean that to assume Russia can be reasoned with as a partner on Chechnya, or on amending the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or on other strategic questions is to engage in wishful thinking at this stage.

A revitalized Russian state built on brutal reconquest of Chechnya might be as unpalatable for the United States as the further weakened and chaotic Russian state that would emerge from defeat there. America must now follow a minimalist policy of avoiding actions that would make a bad situation worse. In dealing with Russia today, that is a mighty challenge.