RUSSIAN ARMY officers say they will destroy anyone who has not left Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, by Saturday. They couch this as a warning to civilians to decamp. But thousands of people remaining in Grozny are too old, feeble or wounded to move. Many are cowering in basements, without heat or electricity, in fear of Russia's constant bombardment; they may not have seen the leaflets that the Russian military dropped from the air. Even those who are aware of the ultimatum may decide it is too dangerous to leave; the bombing continues without pause, and Russian troops on more than one occasion have massacred civilians who were fleeing as ordered.

This strategy -- to level a city and kill everyone within it -- is not an acceptable method of war, even within a conflict that may itself be justifiable. When Serbian forces used disproportionate force against civilians in Kosovo, an international court of the United Nations indicted Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. When Indonesian forces razed towns and cities in East Timor, the United Nations launched a war crimes inquiry, which is continuing. Now is the time to begin gathering information on Russia's tactics in Chechnya, and to let Russia's leaders and generals know that no one should be immune from prosecution for such atrocities.

A few world leaders are beginning to put an accurate label on Russia's methods, although President Clinton and Vice President Gore are not yet among them. "It's really getting to the point where it's crossing the line into potential crimes against humanity," Canada's foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, said yesterday. "You could have 30,000 people there -- very old, disabled, sick, who can't move -- who are subject to major bombing, and so I think it's very important in the next couple of days that we try to put a restraint on that." It's telling, and sad for Russian democracy, that the world leaders who support Russia's actions are dictators, such as those of China and Belarus.

No outside leader has disputed Russia's right to fight terrorism. Chechen militants struck into the neighboring province of Dagestan earlier this fall, at considerable cost of life. Russian officials also blame Chechens, though without any evidence, for several apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that claimed hundreds of lives. Russia's government describes the current military campaign in Chechnya as aimed at those terrorists. But the true aim seems to be more the eradication of a people than of a band of criminals.