YOU'VE GOT TO GIVE the Russians this: They were absolutely right in perceiving a change in tone and even substance in the speech Jimmy Carter gave in Winston-Salem, N.C., the other day. It was a tough speech. There were no references to "inordinate" fear of communism in it. On the contrary, the president now observed merely that "old ideological labels have lost some of their meaning" - some , an interesting choice of words. Overall, Mr. Carter used the occasion to assert a rock-like commitment to maintaining and, if necessary, strenghtening the nation's military defenses, and he did not leave his listeners in any doubt as to where he thought the principal threats were coming from. It was this that the Russians reaching with uncommon speed in a waspish Tass statement, found so offensive.

Thus the president spoke of "an ominous inclination" of the Soviet Union to use its military resources to intervene in other people's conflicts; he cited an "excessive Soviet buildup" of arms in Europe, and he suggested that United States might have to go forward with advanced strategic weapons systems to counter the relentless and fast-paced decade-long Soviet pursuit of a bigger and meaner strategic nuclear arsenal.

Our own first response is simply this: that the Soviets, having so astutely noted the turning up of the head under the burner of U.S. Soviet affairs, should ask themselves what contribution their own activities in this new president's first year made to the carter verbal escalation. We think they contributed plenty - a failure to slacken their provocative strategic and theater-arms buildup or to signal restraint in their African adventures. Mr. Carter's defense budgets have carried numerous hints and implicit offers of the we-won't-if-you-don't kind, and the Russsians have not responded.

That is one reason Jimmy Carter cannot ignore either the Russian enterprise or the domestic unease that exists concerning much of his national security policy. But it is not the only reason, and here we come to what strikes use as the second interesting fact about the president's Winston-Salem speech: why he felt he had to give it . . . and why now. Our sense of it is that Mr. Carter made his own important contribution to the political circumstances that required the speech. He did this by, over his first year in office putting forth, one by one, individual programs and decisions and policies that created a widespread public impression of wobbly, if not failed, resolve. Never mind for the moment that individually - from the inherited Panama negotiations, to the B1 decision, to the prospective Korean disengagement, to the Predicament in Africa's Horn - he may be said to have been acting on sound instinct or sound advice. The point is that the individual parts seemed to many to spell out a backing off from vital prior commitments to our own defense and that of our allies. More order and coherence and a relating of the various parts to the whole are requires if Mr. Carter is to avoid this same pitfall in the future.

And he needs to. For it is painfully obvious that one reason the president was obliged to speak as he did was to establish credibility for any new SALT treaty he brings before the Senate. That is likely to be a very big and rough domestic battle, and the odds against his prevailing will be strong unless he can overcome the doubts that have been generated among parts of the public and in Congress by a certain seeming haphazardness of approach now. It goes without saying that he also needs to bring back a genuinely worthy agreement, and that is one of the things he seemed to be telling the Russians in his Winston-Salem speech: It set out some very tight and tough standards for a SALT agreement. Were they too rigid? We don't know. They were couched in language susceptible of a broad range of interpretation. But we do know that some stiffening along the lines of Winston-Salem was needed.

Not that any or all of this should be the source of unrelieved gloom, The fact is that Mr. Carter is only one year into his presidency and that U.S.-Soviet relations under a Carter administration are only that old. It is hardly surprising that the skirmishing and adjusting and misreading and revising is still going on. We think there is no reason to be despairing about SALT or other manifestations of so-called detene policy - at least not if the Soviets and the Carter administration ponder how things came to the present disgreeable pass.