Russia's GRU: Spy agency known for brazenness back in the headlines

The headquarters of GRU in Moscow.

(CNN) For an intelligence service that is supposed to operate in the shadows, the GRU seems to attract a lot of headlines.

The GRU -- formally known as Main Directorate of the General Staff -- has long been accused by the West of orchestrating brazen and high-profile attacks, including the hacking of Democratic Party email accounts during the 2016 US presidential election and the 2018 nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England.
Now the spy agency is again at the center of international attention, after reports that US intelligence concluded GRU operatives offered cash incentives to the Taliban to kill American and British troops in Afghanistan.
    The news has already caused a political storm in Washington, with congressional leaders demanding answers from the Trump administration. But observers also wonder why the Russian intelligence agency would run an operation that potentially conflicts with Russia's own stated goals to bring warring parties to the table in Afghanistan and avoid a precipitous collapse of the central government.
    Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the story -- first reported by the New York Times -- was a "hoax," echoing President Donald Trump's suggestion that the reported intelligence may be "phony" and the story false.
    "First of all, these assertions are a lie," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. "Secondly, if the US special services still report to the president, then I suggest [you] proceed from the corresponding statements of President Trump, who has already given his assessment to these reports."
    One can be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu: The denials about GRU always come swiftly from the Russian government.
    In March 2018, then UK Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia was "highly likely" responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury -- and that the two suspects in the attack were believed to be officers of the GRU. That July, the US Special Prosecutor's office indicted 12 GRU officers for their alleged involvement in the hacking of Democratic Party email accounts as part of a larger, Kremlin-directed effort to interfere in the 2016 US election campaign.
    The Kremlin repeatedly denied involvement in both cases, although Russian President Vladimir Putin called Skripal a "traitor" and a "scumbag" and suggested that the leak of the Democratic Party emails was not necessarily a bad thing.
    "Some hackers published information about the unseemly conduct of Ms. [Hillary] Clinton's campaign headquarters -- supporting one candidate for the party nomination at the expense of the other," he said. "Everyone is talking about who did it, but is it so important who did it? What is important is the content of this information. That's my answer."
    Now, allegations that the GRU offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops come at a sensitive time: Russia -- which considers Afghanistan a near-neighbor -- want American troops out of the country.