BRUSSELS, Belgium -- In yet another sign that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was turning global politics upside down, the Russian president, Boris N. Yeltsin, wrote to NATO yesterday asking it to consider allowing Russia to become a member sometime in the future.
Mr. Yeltsin's letter was sent in conjunction with the first meeting ever held at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization between NATO foreign ministers and those of the former Warsaw Pact -- the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
The Soviet Union was represented at the start of yesterday's session by the Soviet ambassador to Belgium, Nikolai N. Afanasyevsky. But before the four-hour meeting was over, Mr. Afanasyevsky stunned the foreign ministers present by announcing that his country no longer existed and that he had been ordered to strike all references to the "Soviet Union" from the final communique, which had already been distributed to the press.
As one foreign minister later, "We began the meeting with 25 nations present, and we ended with 24."
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Afanasyevsky stood up and read some prepared remarks, welcoming this new cooperation between former Eastern and Western foes and then read a letter from Mr. Yeltsin.
In his letter to NATO, Mr. Yeltsin said: "This will contribute to creating a climate of mutual understanding and trust, strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent. We consider these relations to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels. Today we are raising a question of Russia's membership in NATO, however regarding it as a long-term political aim."
Later, Mr. Afanasyevsky took NATO Secretary-General Manfred Woerner by surprise by telling him he needed to speak to the assemblage immediately. The ambassador told the gathering that his latest instructions from Moscow, reflecting consultations among the "sovereign states" that had replaced the Soviet Union, required him to request that "all references to the Soviet Union be deleted" from the final communique.
Mr. Yeltsin's request to join NATO -- which follows appeals by other members of the former Warsaw Pact -- could eventually present a serious challenge. Formed four decades ago to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, it now finds itself having to deter a stampede from the newly liberated Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which want to join the Western alliance.