“I told you that I did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize,” Obama joked yesterday during a press conference in Stockholm. A quip, a holiday from the incessant statements of principle that characterize these days of preparation for the by now inevitable attack on Syria. The G20 begins tomorrow in Russia. Obama and Putin have not scheduled face-to-face meetings since the Snowden crisis, but their long-distance dialog is deafening the international community. The ability of the two and the fate of the world are being measured in the Middle East: Obama wishes to assert the moral strength of the U.S., sweeping away in a few hours any doubts regarding the hegemony of the West in this area.

Putin knows that his ally has become an embarrassment but he can count on a robust Shiite coalition that will not desert him as long as he does not abandon it, and which he values at this time inasmuch as the Russian bear’s claws can be rough, given his scarcely presentable allies Assad, Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, and Khamenei, the ayatollah who rules Iran. Therefore, maintaining their positions gives the American president a glimmer of hope.

Yesterday Obama repeated, “The world must act.” Taking for granted Assad’s use of chemical weapons, he insists that “UN approval of military action cannot be an excuse for doing nothing.” He challenges the world: “If we feel outraged by the slaughter of the innocent, what will we do to oppose it?” In Washington his ministers Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey are waging a battle to convince the Foreign Relations Commission in Congress, and Kerry pleads his chief’s position by asking, practically with tears in his eyes, “Will you be at peace with your conscience if Assad gasses his people again because the U.S. fails to act?” It is now a matter of moral survival. Obama explains that he was not the one to lay down the famous “red line,” but rather the international community, questioning his honor and in a single breath reminds them that the authority belongs to him, not to the Congress, but he is still asking for support.

Putin, with a face that as usual is both boastful and stony, decides to make headlines, while it is understood that he is not quite sure what to do: he is certainly ready to support military action against Syria, if it were sanctioned by the U.N. and if it were “proven beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Assad has used chemical weapons. But everyone knows that for two years the U.N. has been unable to use the voting mechanism against Assad because of the veto by Putin himself. And further it has been known that there were 100 thousand deaths, and it has been known that he did it. But Putin quickly explained his reasoning: Assad has never used chemical weapons; without proof it would be an arbitrary aggression on an inadmissible pretext. So, what does Putin want to do if Obama attacks? He has prudently reported that the delivery of the S300 missiles promised to Assad has been suspended. If the attack takes place, he added, “We have our own ideas about what we will do and how we will do it.”

But does he really know? Putin has sent a large warship to the Eastern Mediterranean, where the American vessels are also found. It is one way to reaffirm a master’s presence on the waves: it is his gateway to that hegemony over the Middle East which Russia also accesses through the naval base in Tartus, the center of Assad’s coastal power. At this time Putin is weighing the political advantage he gains from the contest with Obama, which puts him on the same level and gains him approval, against the extreme gravity of the argument. How far can Russia really bind itself to the Syrian-Iranian front, which is preparing an atomic bomb that is also dangerous for it? And how much will Obama strive for at least its neutrality? Wait for the next installment at the G20.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale; English copyright, The Gatestone Institute