AP interview: Russia's ex-railways chief says nation's economic downturn to last 2 more years

A close associate of Vladimir Putin, who recently lost his job as Russia's railways chief in a reshuffle seen as a sign of increasing Kremlin infighting, says the nation's economic downturn will last at least two more years amid ongoing Western sanctions.

Speaking in his first interview with a Western media outlet since being relieved of his duties last month, Vladimir Yakunin accused the United States of introducing the sanctions in a bid to prevent Russia and Europe from forging closer economic ties.

"In terms of global competitiveness, the collaboration between Europe and Russia will bring a new powerful source of economic development," he told The Associated Press, adding that the U.S. would resent such a prospect.

The U.S. and the European Union introduced a series of economic and financial sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and Moscow's continuing support for an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Yakunin was among the members of Putin's inner circle who faced a U.S. travel ban and saw their assets abroad frozen.

The Western sanctions, coupled with a plunge in the price of Russia's valuable oil exports, pushed the Russian economy into recession this year. Asked how long he expects it to continue, Yakunin said he agrees with those who believe the downturn will last "not just for this year, but at least for two more years."

Like other Russian officials, Yakunin argued that while the sanctions severely limited Russian companies' access to Western capital markets, they have also created opportunities for domestic growth.

"If we are deprived of normal communication with the financial market, normal communication with the global economic market, then we should start to introduce our own technologies and our own products," he said in English.

Yakunin, 67, strongly defended his 10-year record at the helm of the state-controlled Russian Railways, saying that critics' allegations of systemic overspending and inefficiency are unfounded. He claimed that his company was actually more cost-efficient than most other state-controlled conglomerates.

Observers in Moscow see Yakunin's dismissal as a sign of an intensifying struggle for power in Putin's inner circle as resources dry up, and predict more reshuffling of posts.

Asked if Moscow and Washington could still cooperate on some global issues, Yakunin held out hope for joint efforts in combating the Islamic State group and other challenges and threats.

"Russia and America, Russia and Europe, we have a lot of major problems to be settled only together," he said.

There have been recent signs of an ongoing Russian military buildup in Syria, with U.S. and Israeli officials saying they expect Moscow to set up an air base in Latakia. Moscow says that Russian troops have been in Syria to help train its military to operate Russia-supplied weapons in the fight against the IS. Putin hasn't ruled out joining the fight against the terror group alongside the U.S.-led international coalition.

Asked whether Russia could send its troops to Syria to help fight the IS, the prerogative of the upper house under the Russian constitution, Yakunin said he doesn't expect such a move. "To my mind, nobody is foreseeing that kind of development of the situation," he said.