KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Vladyslav Sobolevskyy isn't someone you'd expect to be hearing it from, but there it was.
"It’s a political manipulation," said the burly, battle-hardened veteran of a war that's been gnawing at Ukraine for more than four years, in a reference to this week's imposition of martial law across nearly half the country.
A former commander of one of Ukraine's most controversial volunteer battalions since fighting broke out in 2014 who keeps an ax adorned with a skull on his desk, Sobolevskyy spent three years fighting in a village that sits on the shore of the Sea of Azov.
Access to that strategic sea, long shared by Russia and Ukraine, was at the center of the naval clash on November 25 that prompted the call for martial law and rekindled fears of a broader conflict.
But three days later, Sobolevskyy was suggesting the current mobilization was an attempt by President Petro Poroshenko to boost his public standing four months ahead of a planned presidential election -- a charge similarly raised by Poroshenko’s critics in Kyiv and by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sobolevskyy was helping to oversee the start of weapons training for around 50 civilians who were filing into the Azov National Militia's training center in Kharkiv on November 28 in response to a call for volunteers after the naval incident. The group of mostly young men practiced assembling Kalashnikov rifles.
"They want to be ready," Sobolevskyy said.
Ukraine’s second-largest city and home to an important tank factory, Kharkiv sits 420 kilometers north of the Sea of Azov.
But it abuts Russia's border to the north and was the scene of an armed effort by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 to seize control of the city before they were repelled by government forces.
If Russia unleashes a large-scale assault on Ukraine, "we will not have much time" to react, Sobolevskyy said. "We will be the first people who will go to the new war."
Outside the Azov training center on November 28, there were few obvious signs of martial law.
In Kharkiv itself, banks were open, cafes were buzzing, and the subway was running on schedule.
Many residents shrugged off talk of martial law or downplayed any immediate effect on their daily lives. Or, in some cases, they simply hadn't heard the news.
Dmytro Yuriev, a 79-year-old retired university worker and volunteer handing out pamphlets on the country's war effort from a tent on Kharkiv’s snow-covered Freedom Square, said he knew nothing of the new directive when RFE/RL informed him.
"How can that be?" he asked. "What does it mean?"
Local officials were unsure exactly what it might mean for the city, and they held meetings through most of the day on November 28 to discuss it.
Through a spokesperson, Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes declined an interview because he was said to be unsure which aspects of martial law would go into effect. Regional military leaders, too, declined to meet with reporters because they said they were still parsing the language of the law.
Dmytro Bulakh, a Kharkiv regional council member and co-chairman of the board at Kharkiv Reform Coalition, speculated that it might not "affect the lives of ordinary people," who were already used to war on their doorstep.
Several hours into the new regime, he said, "I don’t think it will need to be imposed here."
But Kharkiv regional authorities had taken some precautionary measures, including checks of bomb shelters, schools, and gymnasiums, where people might gather in the event of an attack.
Not all aspects of martial law were formally invoked in the 10 regions directly affected, but in some, local officials with their own interpretations of the law were invoking it in seemingly creative ways.
This is a first for all of us. We’re still learning what it will mean for everyone."-- Oksana Ivanets, State Border Guard Service
In neighboring Sumy, the city council said it was mulling an initiative to restrict traffic in the city with checkpoints and to limit the sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.
In south-central Zaporizhzhya, the regional head urged political parties to "decrease their activity in the form of the holding of mass events."
In Kherson, which directly borders annexed Crimea to the north and has access to the Black and Azov seas, authorities stepped up security at the administrative border with the peninsula and began restricting the passage of Russians.
That security was tightened further on November 29 when the State Border Guard Service announced that only Ukrainian citizens would be allowed to enter Crimea from Ukrainian territory under government control. It did not clarify how long the measure would be in place.
At the Hoptivka border crossing 35 kilometers north of Kharkiv one day earlier, there was little traffic bound for Russia and even fewer vehicles entering Ukraine.
Oksana Ivanets, a State Border Guard Service spokeswoman for the Kharkiv region, told RFE/RL that the service had received orders to be on "full military readiness."
But faced with the threat of an incursion near Hoptivka for more than four years, border guards there have long been on heightened alert, and even erected a border fence and dug antitank trenches as a precaution.
Otherwise, not much had changed and officials were still awaiting further orders from Kyiv.
"This is a first for all of us," Ivanets said. "We’re still learning what it will mean for everyone."
In Hoptivka, nobody had been barred entrance to Ukraine and border guards had not witnessed any "provocations," she added.
Poroshenko argued that martial law was necessary in the face of the threat of "full-scale war" with Russia, which he claimed was massing tens of thousands of troops and military equipment along its border with Ukraine. That claim has not been independently verified.
And while there was much confusion about what exactly martial law meant for most Ukrainians, one thing was clear: Ukraine’s military had been put on "full combat alert."
"I will now be using the opportunities, which are given to me as the commander in chief by the law on martial law, to strengthen our armed forces," Poroshenko told a November 28 meeting of top officials in the Chernihiv region, one of those under martial law, according to his press department. "I will do everything I can to implement all the necessary decisions so that our army would be ready."
The same day, 900 kilometers to the south, Reuters reported seeing a Russian Navy ship, the Vice Admiral Zakharin minesweeper, moving toward the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea.
On November 29, Russian Black Sea Fleet spokesman Aleksei Rulev told the Interfax news agency that a fourth S-400 air-defense missile battalion had been put on combat duty in the Crimean city of Dzhankoi, near the border of mainland Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko announced new measures banning Russian citizens from exchanging foreign currency or conducting bank withdrawals. He also said he supported further measures restricting Russians' travel to Ukraine.
"And I think it’s totally justified,” he added.