STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - More Swedes favor joining NATO than oppose it for the first time, a major poll showed on Tuesday, signaling changing sentiments after the Nordic state mobilized troops, helicopters and ships to hunt a suspected Russian submarine in its waters.
A weekend survey conducted by pollsters Novus for TV4 showed 37 percent support joining NATO while 36 percent were against.
It was the first time in a Novus-poll that more respondents were in favor than against, and challenged the policy of the new center-left government of Prime Minister Stefan Lofven which has ruled out joining NATO - although it says it will continue to participate in some alliance operations.
Polls have previously shown a clear majority oppose NATO membership in Sweden and Finland.
But the week-long search in waters outside Stockholm, which ended without any submarine being found, was the latest incident to spark questions over Sweden's ability to defend itself amid the Ukraine crisis.
Sweden's defense capability was already in the spotlight after Russian warplanes staged a mock bombing run on Sweden last year. Danish jets belonging to NATO based in Lithuania mobilized to shadow them after Sweden's air force was caught napping.
Last month, Sweden said two Russian warplanes entered its air space, calling the intrusion a "serious violation" and sending a protest to Moscow's ambassador in the Nordic country.
A commission set up by the previous government said on Wednesday that Sweden should consider joining NATO, but it was dismissed immediately by new Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist.
"My impression is that (the commission) has made a serious and solid work, but in terms of NATO, we have clearly marked that it is not on the table," he told TT news agency.
As in neighbor and fellow EU member Finland, Swedes wonder whether to seek shelter in the U.S.-led NATO alliance, abandoning Stockholm's two centuries of formal neutrality.
Both Swedish and Finnish armed forces cooperate with the other three Nordic states which are in NATO - Denmark, Norway and Iceland - and both have cooperated with NATO in Afghanistan.
(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Dominic Evans)