The United States, its allies and the United Nations threw lifelines this year to the victimized peoples of East Timor and Kosovo. But the international community tosses only words to the people of Chechnya as they endure Russian shells and bombs.

What accounts for the contrast in the scope, ambition and outcome of international intervention in these three outwardly similar conflicts? Elements of cynicism and Realpolitik that center on Russia's status as a nuclear-armed Security Council member are no doubt involved, as some suggest.

But harsh realities and fundamental principles of international politics also figure here. Victimization alone is not sufficient to win an ethnic group or a captive territory the right to nationhood. There is no guarantee of self-determination for ethnic nations in this era of collapsing empires (the Soviet Union) and the implosion of tyrannies masquerading as states (Yugoslavia, Iraq).

Nationhood has to be won and managed. This is true even for ethnic groups that gain the world's sympathy through their suffering, and whose populations and economic resources exceed those of many of the mini-states that have been automatically handed U.N. membership through quirks of history and decolonization.

Chechnya is one of modern history's most striking examples of a captive people's failure to develop the social cohesion and order nationhood now requires. Three years ago Chechen forces moved to the brink of independence by defeating the Russian army on their Caucasus territory and signing an agreement with Gen. Alexander Lebed that established a clear flight path to freedom.

But the Chechen leadership squandered those three years. They failed to establish an effective government or enter meaningful cooperation with foreign governments and international bodies. Like the Kurds in Iraq in recent years, the Chechens have let internal disputes and a feudal social order undermine their claim to sovereign membership in the family of nations.

This does not justify the scorched cities tactics the Russians have adopted against the Chechens in their politically driven assault on Grozny, or absolve the international community from its duty to help victims where it can. But it does explain some of the political limitations on international action and suggest principles for future conflicts over the qualified right to self-determination.

Serb spokesmen and sympathizers point to the absence of international action in Chechnya as proof of hypocrisy and the "injustice" done to them by NATO's air campaign to rescue Kosovo from ethnic cleansing last spring.

They lapse into the familiar self-serving argument that nothing should be done if everything cannot be done. Failure in Chechnya invalidates any international effort to move Kosovo to permanent safety beyond Serb control, or to help the increasingly restive people of Serbia's other province, Montenegro, they maintain.

Do not accept the crocodile tears of these cynics decrying cynicism. There is no single template or invariable set of rules for independence or for nonintervention, as there seemed to be for most of this century. East Timor is the end of an era, not part of a new one.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who masterfully guided the East Timor crisis to resolution, is operating on familiar ground in pursuing the decolonization of this ex-Portuguese territory seized by the Indonesian army a quarter-century ago.

It is a process that cannot be applied to Kosovo, which is an exercise in post-Communist reconstruction, not decolonization. Annan himself is aware of how poorly suited the United Nations is to carry out its role in the Balkans. But no one else seems to have wanted the job.

The more vital contrast is between Kosovo and Chechnya. However imperfectly, the Kosovars used the opportunities their persecutors created for them at home and in the international community to establish authentic national aspirations and identity.

During a visit to Washington last month, Montenegro's leader, Milo Djukanovic, made clear he will follow that same route if Belgrade continues its disastrous course. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright indirectly cautioned Djukanovic that the West would not automatically come to his defense if Montenegro is seen to be pushing unreasonably for independence.

But neither did she tell Djukanovic that the United States was committed immutably to Serb rule over Montenegro. Just as outside powers can offer a captive people no guarantee of self-determination, neither can they any longer impose barriers to freedom in the name of "territorial integrity." Those struggling against persecution have the right and duty to achieve all they can.