Russia could reemerge as a threat to the United States if it takes a turn toward nationalism and insular politics in presidential elections scheduled for late March, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, said yesterday.

Berger, in a major foreign policy address, said "the world will be watching very carefully" to see whether Russian Prime Minister and acting President Vladimir Putin upholds the "constitutional, democratic process" as he campaigns to succeed Boris Yeltsin.

If Russia "reverts back to a more nationalistic direction or a more threatening posture or a more hard-line posture, it could, under those circumstances, reemerge as a threat, which means that we have a stake in Russia's success," Berger said at the National Press Club.

Putin, who became acting president and the clear front-runner in the election campaign when Yeltsin resigned last week, is the apparent architect of Russia's aggressive military campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya. Berger, echoing recent comments by Clinton, was judicious in his criticism of that campaign. He said the "use of indiscriminate force is wrong . . . but we should not stop supporting those forces in Russia that are trying to strengthen the rule of law and build faith in democratic institutions."

Clinton drew fire from some conservative commentators this week for an essay in Time magazine in which he saluted Yeltsin's "enduring commitment to democracy" and seemed to endorse the aims--though not the means--of Russia's Chechnya policy. He wrote of Russia's "right to oppose violent Chechen rebels" and its attempt "to liberate Grozny," the Chechen capital.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who held Berger's job in Jimmy Carter's administration, told reporters that Clinton's column "is totally wrong in its diagnosis. It paints Russia and Yeltsin as a democracy. On Chechnya, it uses Russian language. It talks about 'liberating' Grozny. . . . It's baffling."

Columnist William Safire wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "For Clinton to characterize the rape of Grozny as 'liberation' is an abomination."

Berger did not directly address the Time essay yesterday, but he stressed that Yeltsin's handover of power to Putin was sanctioned by Russia's constitution and should not interfere with fair elections.

"It's important . . . to recognize that the transfer of power here, Yeltsin's voluntarily turning power over to Putin, took place within a constitutional framework," Berger said. "This has never happened before in the history of Russia, a thousand years."

Putin, he added, "has said that he intends to uphold the rights of the free press, free speech, freedom of conscience, private property. And we obviously will be very interested to see him do this."

A senior Clinton administration official said that "accelerating the transition [in Russia] could be good for Russia and for the United States." The presidential election originally was scheduled for June, but now is expected on March 26. The official said that during parliamentary and presidential election campaigns in Russia, it is difficult for Russia's leader to deal with tough economic and diplomatic issues, including economic reforms, arms control and Chechnya.

"It is a positive thing to get past this transition," the official said. "It is bad for Russia politically and economically to be caught in limbo." The Clinton official, like many European diplomats, also predicted that Putin will "try to wrap up" the popular war in Chechnya soon after the presidential elections.

Berger took a veiled swipe yesterday at Republican presidential candidates and others who say the United States should be more aggressive in pressing Russia to agree to a U.S. missile defense system. Such a system would require amending or scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

"We also are working to convince Russia that the missile defense system we are planning is not designed to undermine their deterrence," Berger said. "We must also convince some of our critics at home who say we should preemptively abandon the ABM Treaty and arms control and move forward unilaterally."