06/25/2015 03:02 EDT | Updated 06/25/2016 05:59 EDT

Ultra-nationalist Ukrainian fighters want Canada to burnish their image

KYIV, Ukraine - In Ukraine, they are sometimes called the Men in Black.

It can be a term of endearment for the roughly 1,500 members of the notorious Azov Regiment, but for the rest of the world there is a different, more sinister connotation —something a spokesman for the group says Canada can help correct.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Alexander Alferov seemed weary about fending off claims the ultra-nationalist, all-volunteer paramilitary organization is full of neo-Nazis and hard-core white supremacists.

Until the outbreak of violence last year, Alferov was a low-key, soft-spoken doctor of Russian and Ukrainian history.

Now, he is one of the principal faces of a group reviled in the international media, most recently in Washington, where lawmakers have expressly banned the U.S. from supporting or training the regiment, which has grown from just a few hundred committed volunteers a little over a year ago.

The group, Alferov said, is committed to restoring the borders of Ukraine, including Crimea, and is prepared to wage a long campaign in order to make that happen.

Canada is a "noble-minded nation" and should publicly reject the characterization of the group as pro-fascist, he said.

"I really hope that Canada — the country that always been a historical, political ally of Ukraine — is going to make a right decision, by supporting the laws that are aimed to help Ukraine and refute all the political statements that Azov Regiment is a neo-Nazi formation."

Canada, with its ex-pat Ukrainian community, understands the country and its politics better than anyone, said Alferov. It has also been the most vocal western nation in criticizing the annexation of Crimea and Russia's support for separatist rebels in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, he added.

Should the Harper government openly side with the U.S. ban, it would likely "blacken" Canada's standing among embattled ordinary Ukrainians, "who see us as their shield," said Alferov, speaking through a translator.

When Canada announced it was sending 200 troops to train the Ukrainian military, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said the instruction would not extend to Nazi sympathizers.

"We're not going to be in the business of training ad-hoc militias," Kenney said. "We will only be training units of the Ukrainian National Guard and army recognized by the government of Ukraine."

The Azov Regiment is a recognized element of the national guard, and takes its direction from the Interior Ministry.

Alferov said it makes little difference whether Canadians provide training. What's important to them is countering what they see as Russian propaganda.

"The opinion that Azov Regiment is neo-Nazi exists only in the international press," he said.

Alferov accused some media outlets of having being bought off by the Russians or fooled with high-quality fake images, doctored with Photoshop.

The regiment originated as a national socialist group called "Patriot of Ukraine." Its websites praised white supremacy, racial purity, and the need for authoritarian power.

Andriy Biletsky, a top Azov commander, founded the original organization; local media outlets covered several violent incidents in which the group was involved.

Some of the regiment's fighters have been photographed wearing Nazi symbols. The group's own flag is an inverted Wolfangel symbol, which was used by the Waffin SS.

They are Slavic symbols that Hitler's Germany appropriated, Alferov insisted.

The unit has proven to be tough and disciplined; so much so, in fact, that fighters are reportedly not allowed to smoke. Members run the gamut from teenaged boys to men in middle age.

Most of them come from the separatist-held eastern Ukrainian region, although Alferov said they have recently begun developing strength right across the country.

The group denies reports that Europeans have been flocking to join its ranks, saying it does not recruit foreign fighters and relegates non-Ukrainian members to training positions.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strident anti-Russian rhetoric plays very well among the members of this battle-hardened force, which helped expel separatists from the strategic port city of Mauripol last year.

Canada was undeniably popular here even before the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime, but Harper's persistent verbal battering of Vladimir Putin has not gone unnoticed.

"I like Canada," Alferov said in English at the end of the interview. "They understand who we are fighting as much as we do."