Rethinking Russia Policy

THE Chechen story has fallen out of the news, but it shouldn't have. The battle is more ferocious and the killing more indiscriminate now than in its earlier phase. The Russians evidently hope to ''finish the job'' in Chechnya by the time President Clinton arrives in Moscow May 9 for V-E Day celebrations -- on a trip designed to support Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Yet the severity of the largely ignored Chechen warfare raises problems for the United States administration, and reconsideration should be given to its Russian policy, including this trip.

The Chechens now experience the equivalent of several Oklahoma City bombings daily. The worst bombardment of Sarajevo was 3,500 shells a day. In February 4,000 Russian shells fell on Grozny per hour. For the Clinton administration to remain silent on this is to abdicate moral responsibility.

A desire to honor the immense sacrifice the peoples of the Soviet Union made to defeat fascism during World War II would have been an appropriate motivation for a presidential trip. But since Mr. Clinton's decision last month to favor Mr. Yeltsin with a visit, the war has not only continued but intensified. As many as 30,000 civilians have been killed since December; this month's toll includes 250 civilians in Samashki. Anatoly Shabad, a Russian member of parliament who slipped through Army lines, said: ''What happened there was a real massacre, a large-scale massacre.''

Moscow controls the story -- and journalists' access to battle sites. The Russian whistle-blower on Chechnya, Sergei Kovalyov, was fired as top Russian human rights official. This month brings a tragic disappearance in Chechnya of Frederick Cuny, one of the world's leading disaster-relief experts. He wrote recently: ''When the full truth of the battle comes out, it will be apparent that most of the civilians who have died ... are ethnic Russians.''

How does the White House regard such absurd assertions as the Russian generals' charge that Chechens blew up Grozny to simulate an air attack?

The leader of the free world should reconsider his trip. He could at least condemn the killing that seems related to his own decision to travel. The worst case would be a celebratory trip during a carnage, with nothing said to condemn it. That would be a defeat for freedom and human rights -- which the United States should stand for.

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