Vladimir Putin dismissed claims that Russia was behind the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, as “drivel”.
In his first public comments about the nerve agent attack, the Russian president called the poisoning Skripal and his daughter Yulia a “tragedy” but said they would have died instantly if they had been poisoned by a “military-grade nerve agent”.
He went on: “Russia doesn’t have any such poisons. We destroyed all our chemical weapons in front of international observers. We were the first to do it.”
He added: “It’s complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup.”
Putin spoke after securing a fourth term as Russian president following a landslide victory in which he secured more than 70% of the vote, and after “tit for tat” expulsions of 23 Russian diplomats in London and 23 Britons in Moscow.
Earlier, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin ordered the attack on Mr Skripal and accused Russia of “stockpiling” deadly novichok over the last decade.
Labour’s John McDonnell said he “agrees with the prime minister” that the Russian state is “responsible” for the poisoning. The shadow chancellor said that “whichever way you look at it”, Putin “is responsible and all the evidence points to him”.
That was an apparent shift away from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s initial view that the link was not proven.
McDonnell said: “There’s a pattern of people being murdered here, therefore it leads you to the conclusion that Putin has questions to answer, because this is highly likely this could have been a state execution.”
He called for the introduction of an “oligarch levy” to strengthen the UK’s hand in imposing effective sanctions on Russia.
A Labour party spokesman said: “This week the prime minister laid out two alternatives: that Russia is directly responsible, or negligent because it lost control of this nerve agent. Labour agrees that the evidence overwhelmingly points to those two alternatives. The Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence and our response must be both decisive and proportionate.”
Scientists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are also due to arrive in London as part of the investigation. Experts will take samples and send them to “reputable international laboratories.” The results are expected to take at least two weeks to come back.
The former Russia double agent and his daughter remain in a critical but stable condition in hospital. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was also exposed to the nerve agent, also remains in hospital but is no longer in a critical condition, NHS England said.