Without retreating from their positions, the United States and the Soviet Union now appear to be looking for ways to alleviate the tensions in their relations.
The atmospherics, if not the substance of the relationship, have changed. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's comments in Pravda this week, carefully worded as a response to President Reagan's call for better ties, contained no concessions on arms control or other nuts-and-bolts issues. But Mr. Andropov's emphasis on the possibilities of resuming a dialogue with Washington and the moderate tone of his remarks - coming after the Shultz-Gromyko get-together in Stockholm - are viewed as positive in themselves.
Senior administration officials say that it probably will be spring before it will be evident whether concrete actions are possible this year. They believe that Mr. Andropov and his colleagues are watching to see how President Reagan fares politically in the next few months (assuming he runs for reelection) before making any firm policy decisions.
But US officials say the dialogue between the two sides will now intensify in an effort to find areas where tensions can be reduced. ''We're being very cautious,'' says one senior official. ''But we are making clear to the Soviets that we're willing to deal and we are looking at problems in pragmatic, problem-solving ways.''
There are a host of issues, many of them small, on which headway could be made:
* Talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact on reducing conventional arms in Europe will resume in mid-March. Although there is no sign yet of a change in either side's position, past Soviet concessions on verification of mutual troop withdrawals offer a modicum of hope for movement in the negotiations.
* The meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal is examining means to prevent the kind of attack on a civilian airliner that occurred over the Soviet Union last September. The Soviets continue to refuse to take responsibility for shooting down the Korean plane, but, according to US officials, they have not completely stonewalled the discussions. Various proposals are being considered to amend the international convention governing the flight of civilian airliners.
In this connection, US officials also are seeking Soviet cooperation on improving navigational aids on the Far East route.
* Both sides now have proposals for stopping the production of chemical weapons. The Soviets' version is more narrowly focused on Europe, while the US wants a global reach. But, say officials, both parties are at least interested in an agreement.
* Negotiations will resume on demarcating the boundary between the US and the Soviet Union in the Bering Strait and the seas around it. There is no basic dispute about the boundary, but maps need to be updated and made more precise before either side can begin exploring for oil and other resources in the region.
* There will be another round of ''hot line'' talks aimed at improving the high-level communications system.
Aside from progress in the above areas, administration officials say, the Russians would meet a good response in Washington if they moved unilaterally on human rights issues - by releasing dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, for example, and letting physicist Andrei Sakharov leave his place of exile. ''We don't need to beat them over the head on this,'' says an official. ''They know this would count for quite a bit here.''
Regional issues are a particular concern to the administration. Above all, the United States would like to see the Soviets exert more influence on the Syrians in order to calm the situation in Lebanon and alleviate the immediate dangers of a superpower confrontation.
In recent months, diplomatic and academic experts have strongly criticized the Reagan administration for the chilly state of US-Soviet relations and warned of the risks of confrontation. Earlier this week Seweryn Bialer, a respected scholar at Columbia University, wrote in the Washington Post that ''the dangers of conflict are greater today than they have been in a long time.'' He went on: ''I think we may be in for a new cold war, characterized by inadequate communication between Moscow and Washington, tense competition between the superpowers, and very possibly an expensive and dangerous new round in the arms race.''
Similar warnings have been sounded by former US envoys to Moscow and experts in the arms control community.
Although they concede that US-Soviet ties are at their coolest in many years, American officials staunchly refute the view that relations are anything approaching a ''cold war.'' Besides the many agreements in force that serve to moderate behavior - such as the SALT I agreement - both sides have been fairly cautious in their actions despite the escalation of public rhetoric.
''Both have been careful not to put the other in a position where they had to react,'' says an administration official. ''We never threatened them in Poland, and we never hit Syrian territory. The Soviets, for their part, sent a lot of people into Syria but not into Lebanon. Both sides are being circumspect. There is today less danger of direct military confrontation.''
In the view of administration experts, to some extent the Soviets themselves have exploited the rise in tensions for their own tactical advantage. By playing up Soviet ''fears'' in their propaganda and in their conversations with visiting Westerners, they have sought to put the onus for the strain in relations on the United States and President Reagan. To some extent, analysts say, this also gives them an excuse to tighten the economic belt at home. But it also risks undermining the Soviet people's confidence in their regime's ability to manage the superpower relationship and ensure peace.
At this juncture the Reagan administration, while guardedly hopeful, is making no prediction about the future course of relations. The Soviet leadership , because of the disarray caused by Mr. Andropov's indisposition, does not seem to be in a position to make hard decisions on how to deal with Washington.
Given this uncertainty, US officials say, the administration is seeking to make its policies clear and, in private conversations, probing to see where realistic agreements can be reached. President Reagan, they add, is prepared for serious negotiations, now that he has redressed the weaknesses in the US military posture and presided over an economic recovery.
The President's recent speech on the US-Soviet relations is described as not a change of policy or a sweetener to the Russians but as a ''clarification'' of US policy. A shift in presidential tone is acknowledged, however. It is particularly significant, officials say, that the President did not say anything about changing the Soviet system.
Slowly and cautiously, Washington and Moscow are thus climbing back to the state of relations that existed before the shootdown of the Korean airliner, officials say. But the delicate political task for leaders on both sides will be to do so without appearing to have made any wrong moves in the past.