Though his hard line on Chechnya has driven up his popularity, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's political future may depend on whether he settles the conflict peacefully, top Clinton administration officials said yesterday.

Having ascended to the presidency following Boris Yeltsin's resignation, Putin is the early favorite in the March presidential elections. But a Chechen quagmire may bring him down, the officials said.

"Chechnya now is a dilemma," national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said on ABC's "This Week." "If it goes on too long, or if it begins to cause increasing Russian casualties, as we seem to be seeing now, with an intensified resistance, this could become something that mires Putin down, and the wave he rode up could become the wave that engulfs him."

Putin has been an outspoken supporter of Russia's military intervention in Chechnya.

But the Chechnya war won't be settled on the battlefield, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There can only be a political solution to this."

The outcome of the war also will set the tone for relations between Moscow and other nations, President Clinton said in a farewell essay to Yeltsin published in Time magazine.

Clinton administration officials said the peaceful handoff of power to Putin bodes well for Russia's democratic future, but there remains an element of uncertainty.

"So far, we're pleased with the statements that he's made about affirming Russian democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, private property," Berger said. "But I don't think we yet have all the answers as to where Mr. Putin--what direction he intends to lead Russia. We hope that it will continue to be the democratic direction."