U.S. officials privately acknowledge that their wider agenda - maintaining Russia's cooperation in Kosovo and Iraq, advancing arms-control talks, investigating money laundering - has caused them to temper their criticism.
Officially, the administration denies pulling its punches.
"We have tried to address this from the get-go, and make clear what we consider to be Russia's international obligations," said Stephen Sestanovich, the secretary of state's special adviser for the independent states of the former Soviet Union. "We've used strong language."
Still, U.S. officials preface that strong language by noting that Russia has a right to protect its national integrity and to fight terrorism. They denounce efforts by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev to set up an Islamic state in Dagestan.
What they never say openly is what many diplomats and Central Asia experts fear: The Russian military, eager to avenge its disastrous 1994-96 war in Chechnya, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, fueled by political ambition, have unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against a largely defenseless civilian population.
"They're using NATO's means to accomplish [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's end: depopulating a place of a people who are not convenient to the government," said Charles Fairbanks Jr. of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties fear Moscow sees the administration's deference as a green light.
"If President [Boris] Yeltsin and Prime Minister Putin are not in control of this military operation, then the United States should be alarmed," Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R., Ore.) said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week. "And if they are in control, then the United States should hold them responsible for the brutality they have unleashed."
After a Russian rocket attack on a market in Grozny last month killed more than 140 people, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright denounced the action as "deplorable and ominous." That was hardly the full-throated denunciation Albright reserves for attacks on innocents at the hands of Iraq or Serbia, critics charge.
Elena Bonner, a prominent human-rights advocate and widow of Soviet dissident leader Andrei Sakharov, appealed to the administration this week to cut off all aid to Russia and funnel emergency money directly to local governments coping with Chechen refugees.
"This is not a fight against terrorists," Bonner told the Senate panel. "The Russian generals are trying to annihilate a large part of the Chechen nation and drive out those who survive from their native land. Their aim is to keep Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation - but without the Chechens. This is genocide."