The Kremlin yesterday rejected claims that Moscow was behind the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as calls mounted for international action after Germany said he had been dosed with Novichok.
Western leaders are demanding answers from Moscow after Berlin said Wednesday there was "unequivocal evidence" that the 44-year-old Kremlin critic had been afflicted by the infamous nerve agent.
Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight last month and was treated in a Siberian hospital before being evacuated to Berlin. He is still in the intensive care unit and remains on a ventilator.
Germany's claim that he was exposed to Novichok -- the same substance used against Russian ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury two years ago -- prompted widespread condemnation and demands for an investigation.
Russia denies there is any evidence that Navalny was poisoned and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Berlin had not provided Moscow with proof.
"There is no reason to accuse the Russian state," Peskov said, rejecting talk of economic sanctions and urging the West not to "rush to judgement".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Novichok findings raised "some very serious questions that only Russia can and must answer", while the United States, Britain, France, the EU and Nato all expressed shock.
Already suffering from wide-ranging Western sanctions imposed over its 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the drop in oil prices, Moscow will be anxious to avoid any further pressure on its economy.
A new crisis in relations with the West could also threaten Russia's Nord Stream 2 project, a 10 billion-euro ($11 billion) pipeline near completion beneath the Baltic Sea which is set to double Russian natural gas shipments to Germany.
Germany has been battling US pressure to scrap the project, but the country's biggest newspaper Bild yesterday called for the project to be suspended, saying that "if the (German) government does not stop the construction of Nord Stream 2, we will soon be financing Putin's Novichok attacks".
Peskov rejected such calls as "emotional statements," saying the project "is in the interests of Russia, Germany and the entire European continent."