Like the Kremlin leaders themselves, many Americans have found it difficult to understand the policy of the Carter administration toward the Soviet Union. The administration's approach to East-West relations remains confusing, uncertain and often contradictory, even after President Carter's effore to "clarify" has policy in a recent speech at Annapolis.

The confusion stems from contradiction between administration words and actions. The words reflect a growing recognition that the Soviet Union is a repressive totalitarian state that seeks to expand its influence through a massive military build-up and the use of a latter-day Afrika Korps of Cuban trops supported by Soviet arms and logistic and financial support. That, in essence, is what the president said at Annapolis. Yet the action that ought to flow from that recognition - a firmer bargaining stance across the whole range of U.S.-Soviet negotiations-has been strangely absent.

Our policies have reflected anything but hard bargaining. Negotiations between Washington and Moscow have been marked by a one-way flow of concessions (from West to East) and a disturbing tendency to appease the Soviets by accepting their terms on such matters as a new strategic arms treaty, a comprehensive ban on nuclear in Europe, and a slackening interest in human rights in the Soviet Union.

At Annapolis, President Carter, while challenging the Soviets to choose between cooperation and confrontation, offered simply more of the same: More SALT negotiations, more negotiations on other issues of arms control, more trade and cultural exchange. The tough talk was offset by weak action. The speech was a velvet fist in an iron glove.

Strong policies and not harsh rhetoric are the sensible course for dealing with the Soviet Union, especially at a time when the Soviets have, under the cover of detente, sought to exploit American forbearance in Afirica, in the Middle East andin negotiations concerning conventional and strategic weapons. As Shakespeare's Hamlet put it: "Fit the action to the word, the word to the action."

Strong and appropriate policies need not be aggressive or extravagant. They should have the simple purpose of achieving understandings with the Soviets based on reciprocity-on strict equivalence. It is time to stop the dangerous practice of entering into unequal deals with Moscow in the misguided belief that they will reward our generosity with restraint in international affairs.

Why, for example, should we sign a strategic-arms treaty that will permit the Soviets to have more than 300 large, modern intercontinental missiles while we are allowed none? Why should all of our strategic bombers count in the treaty (even these that have been disassembled and mothballed) while the new Soviet Backfire bomber, of which they can have some 400 during the life of the treaty, does not count at all?

Why should a U.S. cruise missile in Europe with a range of 400 miles be prohibited, while a Soviet ballistic missile in Europe with a range of 4,000 miles is permitted - and, in unlimited number? Am American willingness to enter into such a manifestly unequal agreement is certain to persuade the Soviets that we are weak, however strident the rhetoric in presidential speeches.

How are the Soviets to interpret the failure to take any action to back up the words of protest at the sentencing to seven years in a concentration camp of Yuri Orlov, a brave young man who sought to monitor Soviet compliance with the pledges Leonid Brezhnev made at Helsinki? And what will the message of the Orlov case mean for those now awaiting trial under similar circumstances?

It is time to take action to support our words about human rights in the Soviet Union. There are licenses that enable the Soviets to purchase our own technology-they could be rescinded or cancelled or turned down. There are Soviet commercial ships operating from some dozens of U.S. ports - while we are permitted to use only four Soviets ports.

It is time to pare down the list to equal numbers on each side. There are exchange programs in technical areas - like space research - in which we get little and the Soviets get a great deal. Perhaps some should be cancelled or cut back.

Until we insist on equality, the Soviets will continue to believe that they shrug off the tough words because they are able to drive a tough bargain. And to the leaders in the Kremlin, that is what counts.