RUSSIA'S GENERALS have figured out why their campaign to subdue Chechnya is sputtering: Their forces have been too "tenderhearted." That is the analysis of Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, Russia's military commander in the Caucasus. No doubt he has in mind the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of the capital, Grozny, which has left thousands of elderly and otherwise vulnerable civilians cowering in basements. He also may be thinking of the slash-and-burn tactics that have forced more than 200,000 people from their homes and the repeated instances of Russian soldiers looting those homes and shooting people who objected to such looting.

To combat this dangerous leniency, the Russian armed forces have formulated new policies. These seem to include, in Chechnya, a resort to fuel-air explosives -- particularly grim weapons against human beings -- and in Moscow, new pressure on the media, which for the first time have been expressing some skepticism about official (and obviously false) reports on casualties, battlefield successes and other matters. It is "outrageous to give air time to the terrorists," a senior official warned the Russian media; "terrorist" refers to any Chechen the Russians would like to shoot.

The most alarming new policy, though, is the decision to round up all Chechen males between the ages of 10 and 60. Many of them will be sent to what the Russians call "filtration camps"; these are temporary prisons that in the past, according to credible reports, have been venues for widespread torture as Russians try to force detainees to admit that they are terrorists. Every male Chechen, in other words, will be regarded as an enemy, a view for which Russian history provides ample precedent: First the czars, then Stalin killed hundreds of thousands of the Muslim people because they did not welcome incorporation into Russia.

What this amounts to is a final admission that Russia is waging a war not against a small number of bandits and terrorists, as it has insisted, but against an entire people. President Clinton's jolly defense of Russia's efforts to "liberate" Grozny notwithstanding, most Chechens do not want to be part of Russia. In this, the region is distinct from most of the rest of the country; it was never true that if Chechnya seceded, the rest of Russia would fall apart. It is true, though, that the attempt to "pacify" Chechnya will be long, bloody and quite possibly futile.

An understanding of the difficulties of the campaign explains Boris Yeltsin's premature resignation from the presidency on New Year's Eve; he wanted an early election so that his favorite, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, could win a five-year term before the early successes of the war proved ephemeral. Now Russia's military effort is unraveling even faster than the Kremlin seemed to expect. Mr. Putin remains heavily favored in the March 26 election. But the United States and other governments, so cautious and deferential until now, should urge him to shift from a policy of extermination to one of negotiation.