Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin will meet President Clinton in Olso Tuesday against a backdrop of heavy-handed Russian military action and mounting civilian casualties in Chechnya.

With Russian President Boris Yeltsin's term coming to an unpopular end, the Clinton administration is straining to distance itself from Russia's invasion of the rebellious Chechen republic without alienating the Russian public or politicians who will remain after Yeltsin is gone from the scene.

The five-week-old Russian war in Chechnya--which has claimed thousands of lives and created nearly 200,000 refugees--complicates an already awkward moment in U.S.-Russia relations and will top the meeting's troublesome agenda.

The Clinton administration also is pressing a reluctant Moscow to agree to changes in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty before June, when Clinton will decide whether to deploy a national missile defense system still in the research stage. In addition, Congress, citing recent banking scandal allegations, is pressing the administration to take a tougher stand on Russia's economic reforms. Moreover, Russia is still angry over the NATO air war in Kosovo and U.S. plans for NATO expansion.

"Relations aren't good, and they're not getting any better," said Thomas Graham, a senior fellow in Russian studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Chechnya, coming on the heels of the banking scandals, is doing a lot of damage to Russia's reputation in the United States and is making it difficult for the Clinton administration to get the support it needs for aid to Russia. And it is hardening positions here on U.S.-Russia relations."

Though senior U.S. officials have denounced bombardments of civilians, U.S. policymakers are perhaps even more worried about the possibility of Russian military casualties, new acts of terrorism and the impact those might have on Russian domestic politics with parliamentary and presidential elections approaching. One worry: a nationalist backlash prompted by new evidence of Russia's impotence. Another: instability spreading to the neighboring countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

"I think that if this situation does not develop in a favorable and acceptable manner, it will jeopardize everything else that we are talking about of a positive nature in Russia today, including Russia's evolution as a civil society," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in recent congressional testimony.

So far, the Clinton administration has adopted a position tougher than the one it took during the 1993-94 Russian conflict in Chechnya. On Tuesday, Clinton is expected to echo other senior administration officials who have affirmed Russia's right to take action in the wake of terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and violence Chechens helped foment in the Russian republic of Dagestan. But like those American officials, Clinton is expected to criticize the massive attack on the entire Chechen republic as the wrong way to respond.

"We're just concerned that the escalation of violence is disproportionate and is leading to too many civilian casualties," said a senior administration official. "This is not any way to solve the problem. Russia needs to find a way to open dialogue with Chechen leaders."

On Friday, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo, and, according to State Department spokesman James P. Rubin, "the subject was nearly exclusively Chechnya." Rubin said Albright was "profoundly troubled about the strategy underlying Russia's actions in Chechnya and the fact that there did not seem to be an exit to a political solution."

"We don't question Russia's right to deal with terrorism within its borders, and we do recognize Russia's territorial integrity, including Chechnya inside of that," Rubin said. "The difference between their right to act and the wisdom in the way they're acting is the essence of the discussions."

Some U.S. officials believe Putin will want to avoid making Chechnya the focus of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting later this month. But any international intervention is problematic because Chechnya is an internal Russian issue. Though it has sought independence, Chechnya is internationally recognized as one of the 89 distinct parts of the Russian federation.

"From the standpoint of international law, there is not a damn thing the United States can do, should do or needs to do," said Thane Gustafson, a professor at Georgetown University and a business consultant on Russia. "That puts us in the ghastly situation of standing by and witnessing a tragedy we cannot do anything about."

Moreover, many Russia analysts say that the invasion of Chechnya has boosted the popularity of Putin because Russians want to strike out against an ethnically distinct group that has been blamed for the Moscow apartment bombings.

U.S. officials acknowledge that their leverage is limited. Though the Clinton administration can threaten to pressure the International Monetary Fund to cut off funds, it isn't clear whether that would hurt Russia more than it would Western banks and other creditors. Other U.S.-funded programs, such as ensuring the security of Russian nuclear materials, are in the U.S. interest, officials said.

But Rushaylo's presentation to Albright is an indication that Russia, which was starting to recover from its 1998 financial crisis, is carefully watching U.S. reaction.

So far, the Clinton administration has been urging Moscow to negotiate with Chechen officials and other leaders in the Caucasus. But some Russia experts say that such negotiations would be fruitless because the moderate Chechen leaders most likely to negotiate hold little sway with the more extreme Chechens responsible for the fighting against Russia.

Reaction against Russia might carry stronger domestic implications, both in the United States and in other countries, had not the rebellious republic alienated virtually the entire international community since Russia withdrew its soldiers from the region in 1996. Congressional sources said a series of incidents have cost Chechnya sympathy, including the killing of British telecommunications workers, the unsolved massacre of sleeping Red Cross workers, the unsolved disappearance of a U.S. human rights scholar, the fomenting of violence in neighboring Dagestan and the destabilization of neighboring Georgia.