MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Russia must "do everything" to stamp out doping, ordering an inquiry into allegations of major drug abuse in athletics which could result in the country being barred from all competitions.
Moscow is scrambling to respond to a bombshell World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report released this week that alleged systematic doping in Russian athletics, and the possibility has already been raised of appointing a foreign specialist to take over its discredited testing laboratory.
Athletics' world governing body, the IAAF, has given Russia until Friday to come up with answers to the allegations, and Putin met sports chiefs in Sochi, the Black Sea home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, ahead of the deadline.
The stakes could not be higher for Russia, which risks being excluded from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio over damning allegations of corruption and "state-sponsored" doping.
"We must do everything in Russia to rid ourselves of this problem," Putin said in footage shown on Russian television of the meeting - ironically called to discuss the country's preparations for Rio 2016.
"We must carry out our own internal inquiry," he said, telling sports officials to show "the most open and professional cooperation with international anti-doping authorities".
"This problem does not exist only in Russia, but if our foreign colleagues have questions, we must answer them," he said.
It is the first time Putin, himself an avid sportsman, has commented publicly on the charges levelled by an independent commission chaired by WADA's Dick Pound, which have rocked the flagship Olympics sport.
Putin echoed a plea by Russia's Olympic Committee not to sacrifice the dreams of clean competitors, saying there should not be collective punishment.
"If someone breaks the rules on doping, the responsibility should be individual," the Kremlin leader said.
"Athletes who have never touched doping should not pay for those who have transgressed." As the doping storm has developed during the week, Russian officials have given conflicting responses.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko on Wednesday lashed out at the claims, saying they were an attempt to "defile the image" of the country and arguing that excluding Russia from the Olympics would be to get rid of a "major competitor".
The country's second-largest bank VTB, meanwhile, said it would not renew a sponsorship contract with the IAAF, but insisted the decision had nothing to do with the doping scandal engulfing the sport.
Mikhail Butov, the Russian athletics federation's secretary general and one of the 27 council members of the IAAF who will meet on Friday, conceded that doping was an issue.
"We are conscious of the problem that we've got. We've got a problem with doping," he admitted to the BBC.
Russia, accused by WADA of "sabotaging" the last Olympic Games, finished fourth in the medals table at London 2012.
The furore comes after Grigory Rodchenkov, the disgraced director of Moscow's suspended anti-doping laboratory who according to WADA deliberately destroyed almost 1,500 samples, resigned his post.
His laboratory has being stripped of its accreditation, prompting swimming's governing body FINA to announce it had moved all the samples taken at this year's world championships in Russia to a WADA-approved lab in Barcelona.
The crisis engulfing athletics comes hot on the heels of a massive corruption scandal at world football's top body FIFA and as cycling is still recovering from the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.
On Wednesday shamed former IAAF president Lamine Diack, 82, who is facing corruption charges, resigned from his position on the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Olympic chief Thomas Bach, in his first reaction to WADA's findings, said the report was "sad and shocking", pointing to allegations that some officials demanded vast sums of money to hush up positive dope tests.
"I would never have imagined that in an international federation, money would be solicited from athletes to manipulate results," said the International Olympic Committee president.
Fears are growing that the scandal could widen to include other countries and other sports, as WADA suggested in its report.
Andrey Baranov, a Russian sports agent who sparked the global investigation into athletics doping, told Britain's Guardian newspaper: "It is wrong just to be focusing on Russia. There should be a similar investigation into countries like Kenya and Ethiopia too.
"Their top athletes are earning far more than the Russians. Yet their levels of testing are very limited."