Russia is in the middle of a historic presidential campaign as well as a bloody military campaign in Chechnya, which has shocked international opinion. It's obvious that American policymakers should avoid taking sides in Russia's electoral politics, while stating with utter clarity our strong objections to this brutal, futile war.

Yet there seems to be a view that the Clinton administration has actually "endorsed" Acting President Vladimir Putin and that we have hesitated to criticize Russia for what it is doing in Chechnya. The truth, however, is very different.

American officials, from President Clinton on down, have described Mr. Putin as capable and energetic, knowledgeable on the issues, blunt and direct, with some positive things to say about economic reform, the rule of law and arms control. All simple statements of fact, but hardly an endorsement.

I have myself frequently noted the challenge of reconciling the two main strands in Mr. Putin's biography. He has, on the one hand, been associated with the economic reformers of St. Petersburg. On the other, he spent most of his adult life in the KGB and has overseen the massively destructive Chechen military campaign. Russian commentators themselves have struggled to reconcile these facts, asking whether Mr. Putin really desires a society built on the rule of law or prefers something different--what I've called "order with a capital O."

I have said there's little to be gained by trying to make a final judgment at this point--because we can't really know the answer; because we're going to have to deal with what Mr. Putin does, not with what he thinks; and because it's our job to try to influence what he does, by what we ourselves do and say.

On no other issue has it been more important for us to be clear than on the war in Chechnya. We respect Russia's territorial integrity, and we don't question its duty to combat terrorism on its own soil. But where Russian actions have called for criticism, we have not minced words.

Last September, when, even before the war began, bombs leveled two Moscow apartment buildings, we warned that this event must not become a pretext for abridging civil liberties. When Russian forces bombed a Grozny market in October, I called it "ominous and deplorable." As the military campaign took an increasingly cruel toll in civilian casualties, we said the Russian army's indiscriminate use of force was "indefensible, and we condemn it."

When President Clinton attended the Istanbul summit in November, he confronted Boris Yeltsin across a huge table of European leaders and told him that Russia could not consider this war simply an internal affair. After Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky's disappearance in January, we held the Russian government accountable for his fate and called on it "to come clean." In February our annual human rights report detailed the appalling human consequences of the war.

When Human Rights Watch published reports of summary executions in Grozny, we called for full and transparent investigations--with international observers--and punishment for those responsible. (For such statements, let me note, the Russian foreign ministry accused the State Department of "information terrorism.") I told Acting President Putin face to face last month that only by getting to the bottom of these charges can Russia credibly claim to take its international commitments seriously. He heard the same strong message when President Clinton wrote to him about Chechnya last week. And I put the issue at the top of my agenda when I met with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Lisbon on Friday.

I've heard it said that the administration won't criticize Russia because we fear that doing so will damage prospects for arms control. Our record of criticism is clear enough, but the very idea of such linkage requires a comment. We are definitely working hard on arms control (and in fact last fall we reached a major agreement on conventional forces in Europe, signed at the very meeting at which President Clinton expressed his views on the Chechen war). But pulling our punches on Chechnya would be contrary to American principles and interests, and we won't do so.

No matter what agreements we seek on other issues, we have to bring Russia to see that this war--and last week's Russian casualties suggest that it is far from over--must be resolved by political, not military means. Russia's failure to recognize this fact can only lead to increased international isolation. To deliver that message, we will continue to tell it like it is.

The writer is secretary of state.