The White House denial machinery went into high gear after Richard Pipes of the National Security Council staff told a correspondent that "Soviet leaders would have to choose between peacefully changing their Communist system . . . or going to war." But in fact Prof. Pipes has only put into words virtually everybody's perception of Washington's attitude toward Moscow.

Objections to Russian behavior have been systematically asserted by the Reagan administration. But the administration has not stipulated, and may not know in its own mind, what it wants Russia to do short of rolling over and playing dead.

The sweep of the anti-Soviet rhetoric constitutes one of the more impressive features of the Reagan administration. The arms control treaty negotiated with Moscow by the Carter administration (SALT II) has been rejected as inadequate. A significant defense buildup has been set in motion. The grain embargo has been continued. The Russians have been charged with abetting international terrorism.

Regionally the picture is just as clear. The European allies have been asked to stand by the United States in defense of the Continent and in support of Poland. A remote civil war in El Salvador has been identified as a test of Soviet behavior in Latin America. The visit of a Korean strongman became a vehicle for asserting a tougher stance against Soviet pressures in Asia. Secretary of State Alexander Haig even speaks of trying to "develop a consensus . . . among Arab and Jew" by emphasizing the danger of "Soviet inroads" in the Middle East. Aid to resistance fighters in Afghanistan has been publicly advocated by the president himself.

The assertion of grievances against Russia seems right to me, as it probably does to most Americans. If anything, articulation of concern by the United States was overdue. The Russians needed to know they were taking actions viewed in this country as perilous to peace. So did the rest of the world.

International circumstances, moreover, do not require that the United States quickly engage the Russians in negotiations to reduce tensions. The Soviet Union has internal troubles. Russian forces are under pressure in Afghanistan. Poland presents excruciating choices. There is no reason to believe Moscow is on the verge of a great leap forward. On the contrary, Soviet policy as outlined by President Leonid Brezhnev to the 26th Party Congress last month conveys the impression of a boa constrictor putting in for a spell of quiet in which to digest a rather large meal.

But Washington cannot sustain indefinitely a posture of unremitting hostility to Russia. American idealism, as the fuss about El Salvador shows, balks at mere negativism -- particularly when it costs blood or money. The European allies are aching to settle disputes, the better to get back to business as usual with the Russians. The American position in the Persian Gulf, and perhaps in the whole Islamic world, is built on sand.

So at some point, perhaps next fall at the U.N. General Assembly, Washington will have to close with Moscow. Before then, the administration ought to be getting into the back of its head a sense of hwo it can come off collision course, a feel for what it wants from the Soviet Union.

The obvious list would include an amended arms control treaty, Soviet restraint in Latin America, progress toward liberalization in Poland and a way of bringing the Afghan resistance to the table with the present regime in Kabul. Judging by their appointments, Secretary Haig and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger would both accept such measures as a base for accommodation.

But would the president? Would those who carry weight with him -- like Sen. Paul Laxalt, Edwin Meese, Michael Deaver and Richard Allen of the White House staff? Nobody knows. Which is to say that, apart from griping, the United States has yet to formulate a Soviet policy.

Internally at least, such a policy needs to be developed. Otherwise the administration will find itself without a game plan for fighting pressures to do the one thing it ought not to do -- climb down in public.