The Clinton administration's decision to take a hands-off approach to the increasingly brutal Russian assault on the breakaway Chechnya republic stems largely from Washington's shared desire to see the republic's quest for independence crushed, U.S. officials said.

Washington, like Moscow, fears that if Chechnya is permitted to declare independence, other Russian republics may do the same and the result eventually could be a violent disintegration of the country and the loosening of central controls over its nuclear weaponry, the officials said last week.

Although the administration has portrayed Moscow's struggle with Chechnya as an internal affair not subject to U.S. meddling, an overriding consideration is Washington's conviction that Russian President Boris Yeltsin's tough approach is also in the U.S. interest, they said.

"I accept Yeltsin's argument" that if Chechnya is able to break away from Moscow, other republics may be tempted to do the same, said a U.S. policymaker on Russia. "It's very important for our long-term security that Russia remain a unitary state that remains stable. We have an obvious interest in the stability of their armed forces {and} nuclear forces."

The administration's fundamental -- albeit quiet -- support for Yeltsin's effort to bring Chechnya to heel was reflected in its mild expression of concern Friday about the Russian military's escalating attacks on unarmed civilians in Chechnya. A State Department spokesman pledged only to raise the matter with Moscow to "evaluate the facts."

Washington's primary concern is what impact the military operation might have on Yeltsin's domestic political standing. So long as his generals do not prosecute the war with such brutality that it divides Moscow and threatens Yeltsin's tenure, the Clinton administration is prepared to stand behind its statement that the conflict is a Russian problem, officials said.

The administration's policy is being driven partly by insistent warnings from the intelligence community that a further unraveling of Moscow's control over distant republics such as Chechnya could move the country toward a state of chaos in which nuclear weapons and other deadly armaments slip onto the black market and ethnic groups struggle violently for territory or power.

Although not considered a near-term risk, "the disintegration of Russia would be a disaster," a senior administration official said. Surviving states would be unable to keep in check powerful neighbors such as China.

Chechnya, a sparsely populated and largely poor republic about the size of Connecticut, has no nuclear, chemical or biological arms on its territory, U.S. officials said. A Russian military base that has housed bombers equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles is located nearby in North Ossetia, but Washington discounts claims by the renegade Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, that he has access to nuclear arms.

But U.S. officials said they see the conflict as a template for Moscow's continuing struggle with other republics that want more autonomy, including several that have bombers or missiles equipped with nuclear arms. "Russia is a multi-ethnic state {with} 100 different nationalities or ethnic groups. Yeltsin is correct that allowing one group to secede would encourage others," a policymaker said.

The republic of Tatarstan, for example, is the principal home of the nationalist-minded Tatars, and is situated in the middle of a region that has two nuclear weapons design facilities and six facilities for ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Like Chechnya and at least nine other Russian republics, Tatarstan has declared its local laws have primacy over Moscow's dictums; along with four other republics, it has sought the right to mint its own currency and collect taxes.

In the past year, U.S. analysts said, Moscow has tried to block such independence moves by striking agreements with Tatarstan and other republics allowing a measure of limited autonomy. But a senior U.S. official said the intelligence community believes "a permanent federal solution has not been found" and further struggle is likely.

"Continued devolution of political authority would facilitate stronger alliances among regional leaders, armed forces personnel and organized crime; these in turn could greatly increase the risk that fissile materials, nuclear weapons expertise, or nuclear warheads could get into the wrong hands," said a Spring 1994 article in "International Security" by Jessica Stern, who recently began working on Russian matters for the National Security Council.

U.S. officials said they dismiss any notion that Russia's breakup might be to U.S. benefit. Unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia "is a democratic country, with elections and a constitution, which Chechnya, by the way is defying. It is not a totalitarian state, but a friendly country to the U.S. that we need to get along with," a senior official said.

Moreover, the Chechen leadership is neither democratic nor reform-minded, but "blackmailing, brutal and authoritarian," the official said. Another official who follows Russian affairs said, "I don't want to say that all Chechens are crooks, but the people running the country are."

A secondary consideration in Washington's hands-off policy, officials said, is a desire to get back in Yeltsin's good graces after his public criticism of Clinton administration positions on the Bosnian war and the expansion of NATO.

A third consideration, one official said, is that there are virtually no Chechen Americans, and the armed struggle has not had a high profile in news accounts outside Washington. For now, as one official put it, "it's just wait and see" for the administration. "There are obvious risks to the fabric of {Russian} society," but Yeltsin may yet avoid too great a tear.